Monday September 11, 2017

Florida man helps rally rescue of manatees stranded by Hurricane Irma

This photo provided by Michael Sechler shows a beached manatee in Manatee County, stranded after waters receded from the Florida bay as Hurricane Irma approached.

This photo provided by Michael Sechler shows a beached manatee in Manatee County, stranded after waters receded from the Florida bay as Hurricane Irma approached. (Michael Sechler/Associated Press)

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As Hurricane Irma caused flooding and devastation across Florida on Sunday, in Sarasota a lack of water was the problem.

The eye of the storm had sucked the water from Sarasota Bay, leaving nearly 300 meters of seabed exposed — and two manatees stranded.

"They just looked miserable. You can tell just by looking at them that they were in distress." - Tony Campos

Tony Campos is one of the people who came across the manatees. He posted a cry for help on Facebook.

Tony Campos

Tony Campos (Courtesy of Tony Campos/Facebook)

He spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off from his home in Sarasota. Here is some of their conversation.

Tony, what was it like to look out over Sarasota Bay yesterday?

It was shocking more than anything. I've never seen anything like this in [the] 16 years I've lived here ... You walk out there and you just see miles of open, receded water. It was a bit terrifying, like the world was coming to an end.

How far would you actually have to go out in order to reach the water?

I'd say about 300 yards (275 metres). About three football fields.

And this was at low tide?

Correct. With the hurricane pulling out of the water, there was a lot of water that receded.

So even at low tide you've never seen anything like this before?

Absolutely not. It gets to low tide, you can see that it's more shallow. This was kind of like a Biblical level. Just crazy.

How did you learn about these manatees? 

I have a friend, Elizabeth. She was going for a walk and she posted pictures of these blobs out there. And when I saw that, I thought, "Oh my God, I think those are manatees." So I took her pictures and I shared them on social media. And I went out there to check it out. It took about 10 to 15 minutes. And by the time I got there, I saw that the post that I shared had gotten over 2,000 shares. So the story got out really, really quick. I never would have thought that this would blow up like that.

So when you got to the manatees, were they alive? Were they in good shape?

They were alive. They just looked miserable. You can tell just by looking at them that they were in distress. They weren't really moving and they had a little bit of water under their snout and they were just trying to move. Poor things.

So what did you do?

There wasn't much I could do, unfortunately. Manatees are over 500 pounds. I tried calling Mote Marine, a marine laboratory here in Sarasota. They didn't pick up. Everyone was on lockdown. So then I called the authorities, the FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) and they said they were going to try to do something about it. And they told me to get out of the bay, for my safety. And that was one of things I was — when I was out there in the flats, I had a really bad feeling about being out there. I didn't know if the tide was going to come in smooth or crashing hard. 



When did they finally arrive to rescue the manatees?

I'd say less than one hour. It was really, really fast. The story blew up. It just shows how powerful social media is. You can press a button and your story or your pictures can reach hundreds and hundreds, even thousands of people all at once. 

And what did the wildlife people do?

They had a really ingenious idea. Instead of just dragging the manatees — because they couldn't get four wheelers or ATVs  out there — they got these tarps and they slid the manatees on these tarps. And once the manatee was on the tarp, they pulled the manatee towards the water, kind of like they used the tarp as a luge. It still took them about 100 yards to reach the deeper water.

And when the tide did come in, what was it like?

I have no idea. I was long gone back into my house and family. When I found the manatees, it was already blowing pretty hard.

We can only assume that the manatees were able to at least get back in the water and hopefully survived. 

I know they're OK. They went back in the bay. I know they're still alive.

You're still alive. Is everyone in your family safe?

We were safe. We were expecting for this thing to directly hit us. But somehow, at the last minute, it kind of veered east ... Everyone's in good spirits. The sun's coming out. Neighbours are helping each other. It's really amazing. Everyone's coming together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Tony Campos.